Sorrow. Everyone goes through their share of it, if they live long enough; it's inevitable. If you're lucky, it's mostly the small kind: a broken heart, a bad break-up... something like that. You lick your wounds, and you keep going. Eventually you get over it. If you're extremely lucky, you're smart enough to remember all of the good things in your life, and they more than make up for whatever made you sad in the first place. You almost feel bad for getting down over something so trivial.
But sometimes it's not the small kind. Sometimes it's true sorrow, and only those who have experienced true sorrow can know what that is. That kind of misery doesn't ever really fade away. It pours down like a drenching rainstorm, heavy and soaking. It seeps into everything it touches, permeates all the way to the core. Even after the rain is over, you're left shivering and chilled to the bone. You think you'll dry out, but it's not that simple. It takes bright sunshine, and a lot of it, to chase away sorrow like that.
Nikki had been under the porch for hours, making enough noise to wake all the neighbors in a five-mile radius, but still hadn't delivered yet. Now it was half past eleven, a good three hours past her bedtime, and Molly's father had finally said it was time for her to get some sleep. Molly wasn't happy about it, not one bit, but she knew better than to argue with Daddy once he'd made up his mind. Even still, she muttered complaints under her breath all the way up the creaky wooden stairs that led to her bedroom on the second floor. She'd been waiting to see those pups for weeks now, and it had felt like years.
Nikki let out another yelp as Molly pushed the door to her bedroom open, startling her at first, and reminding her of what she was missing. As she changed into her favorite flannel bed shirt, she huffed a little louder than necessary. Even though there was no one to hear it, the act still made her feel better.
Grudgingly, she pushed back the heavy hand-made quilt covering her bed and pushed her way underneath. She'd had it as long as she could remember, and on a late October night in West Virginia she was grateful for it. As soon as Molly had pulled the quilt under her chin, she felt warm and snug, almost forgetting how angry she was about being sent to bed. Almost.
How am I s'posed to go to sleep with all that racket, anyway? Molly thought as Nikki howled again. She was still wondering when she drifted off, thirty seconds later.
A bright beam of sunlight shot through an opening in the curtain of Molly's bedroom window, first hitting the headboard a foot or so above her head and to the right. As the sun climbed higher, the shaft of light inched its way down the oak surface, and eventually shone directly into Molly's face. She awoke immediately, squinting against the glare until she thought to move her head away from the light. Stretching her arms out wide and yawning, she almost choked as her memory flooded back to her. Her eyes flew to the clock on her nightstand and saw its vivid red digital readout: 6:27 am.
Nikki! The puppies! Molly shot out of bed, throwing on the first clothes she found as she scrambled out of her room and down the stairs. She flew through the hall and across the living room, hurling herself through the screen door that led to the front porch. The door's long spring screeched in protest, then recoiled and pulled shut with a loud clap.
Just off the porch to her left, Molly saw Mama, Daddy, and her older brother Chris all huddled around a gate in the lattice she couldn't see but knew was there. It opened to a crawlspace under the porch where the family's German Shepherd, Nikki, had birthed her litter. All three members of her family looked up as the screen door slammed shut.
"Good mornin', sleepy head," Molly's dad said with a grin. He was a slim man, and tall. His neatly-combed red hair was thinning on top, and a pair of wire-frame glasses rested on his hawk-like nose. A pair of denim overalls covered his lanky frame.
"You didn't wake me up?" Molly demanded, but her anger was more an act than anything.
"I'm not brave enough to try and wake you up before you're ready," he said. "You get downright dangerous."
Molly rolled her eyes as she hurried down the steps and raced around the corner. An excited gasp escaped her mouth before her hands covered it, and her eyes twinkled with glee as she took in the sight before her.
At the point where the porch met the side of the house, the small hinged gate stood open. Nikki lay just beyond, nestled in a cozy depression she'd dug out, and a handful of tiny black puppies nuzzled against her belly, searching for nourishment. Their eyes were closed as they nosed around blindly, with short legs and floppy ears. Nikki took a moment from licking her pups to take a proud look up at Molly. Just behind the dogs, Molly could see the opening in the cinder blocks that led under the house.
"So what do you think?" Her mother smiled. She had long, straight brown hair and brown eyes, just like Molly. Everyone always said she was the spitting image of her mother. "Cute, huh?"
"They sure are!" Molly agreed, pushing her way between her parents to get a closer look. "How many?"
"Six," her brother said. Chris was older than Molly, almost eighteen, and would be heading off to West Virginia State next fall to play baseball. Unlike Molly, he took after their father, with the same reddish-blonde hair and a tall, thin build, no matter how many weights he lifted.
"See one you like?"
"All of them," Molly said as she peered in wonder. Her father had promised she could have one of the pups, but she knew they couldn't keep them all. He had friends and co-workers lined up to buy the rest of the litter, including the owner of the pups' father. A good dog was a prized possession around those parts, especially a pure-bred. As she looked on, wondering how she was ever going to pick just one, a small, muffled whimper caught her attention. Near Nikki's back leg, a pup faced the wrong direction, unable to get turned around. It was smaller than the rest, not unhealthy, but the runt of the litter for certain. "Can I hold one?"
"Careful now," her dad said with a nod.
Molly wasted no time scooping up the tiny black puppy, cradling it against her chest with care. Its whimpering faded, seeming to take comfort in her body heat.
"She's adorable," Molly said, gazing at the pup in her arms.
"He," her father corrected. "That little one's a boy."
"Looks like he likes you, too," a voice said from behind them.
Molly recoiled on reflex, moving behind her father as if to hide. The owner of the voice was Don Kite, and it was a voice Molly dreaded to hear. He was their mailman and also their neighbor, living a couple of houses down and across the street. Mr. Kite was a large man, not quite as tall as her father but far heavier. His dark grey postman's uniform was a bit too small for him, and he was the type that always had something to say. She thought that, in his mind, he was more interesting than he really was. Ever since Molly could remember, he'd been delivering their mail and enjoying an occasional beer with her father, but she'd never been comfortable around him. She couldn't quite say why; something about how he looked at her. It was the way a little kid stared at a cookie jar when his mother had already said 'no'.
"Morning Don," Molly's dad said, and the postman nodded and smiled. Her mother and brother also smiled out of politeness, but Molly knew they didn't care for Mr. Kite either.
"I heard all the commotion last night, and figured ole' Nikki was about ready to bust on you," the mailman continued. He put his hands on his knees and bent in toward them. "Decided to have myself a look before I started my rounds. Why, little Molly gets bigger every time I see her! Seems like only yesterday she was runnin' around in the yard in nothing but a diaper. What are you, now? Nine? Ten?"
"Eleven," Molly said with defiance. In her arms, the puppy gave a disgruntled moan, as if sensing her anxiety.
"Boy, the time does pass by, doesn't it?" Don Kite shook his head and chuckled, not noticing he was the only one laughing. "Alright then, better get down to the office and get loaded up. Mail won't deliver itself."
"And it's about time for you to get ready for school, girl," Molly's dad said as he looked at his watch. "Your bus'll be here in less than an hour."
"Ugggh." Molly groaned at the thought of the orange-yellow Bluebird bus that would be coming to carry her to school. As much as she hated to go, especially now, but she'd been raised well and did as she was told. With a final kiss on the puppy's forehead, she laid him down against Nikki and headed up stairs to get ready.
Later that afternoon, between 3:30 and 4 o'clock, Molly hopped down the steps of that same Fayette County school bus with an enormous grin. Some way, some how she'd survived the whole day, and now she could see the puppies again. She'd day-dreamed about it all day, but the scene before her as the bus drove away was far different from what she'd anticipated.
The first thing Molly saw that made her nervous was her dad's old, green Ford pickup parked in the driveway. He was never home before half past five. In addition, her mom's Saturn wagon was gone, and that was strange. Her mom was always there when Molly came home from school. Her first thought was that maybe her mom had gotten stuck somewhere, or had to go on an unexpected but important errand. It would have to be important for her dad to come home early from the factory. When she noticed the police officer standing in front of her house, she knew it was more serious.
A mop of yellow hair covered the officer's head, with the hat to his black uniform tucked under his left arm. A pair of mirror sunglasses rested on the bridge of his nose, and his badge was pinned over his heart. Both glinted in the sunlight. He stood by the steps to the front porch, and it was there her father sat. His elbows rested on his bony knees, which were drawn up near his head, and his hands covered his face, obscuring it from view. A black and silver police cruiser sat along the curb.
"Daddy?" Molly started, her voice trembling. "Why are you home so early? Where's mama?" The officer looked as if he was about to say something and decided not to. She gasped when her father looked up. She had never seen him in such a state before.
His eyes were red and puffy, and tears had eroded thin canals in the dust covering his face. Without a word he reached out for Molly, grabbing her arms and squeezing her against him in a crushing embrace. Still unaware of the reason, Molly began to cry as well.
"They're gone," he whispered after a few minutes. "Your mother. And Chris. They're gone."
Mountains cover almost all of West Virginia. The roads weave in and around them, rising and falling, but it was normal to me. I never knew anything different. It was those mountains that took my mother and brother. Chris had twisted an ankle going down a flight of stairs at school, and mama went to pick him up. On the way home, a piece of the mountain landed on the Saturn. It was a road they'd gone up and down a thousand times, but on that day a massive piece of the cliff face collapsed under its own weight. Only God knows why it fell at just the right time to land on that little silver car, crushing Mama and Chris instantly. I try to take heart that they didn't suffer, but it doesn't help most of the time.
The next few months were a blur. The puppies grew like weeds in a flower garden, becoming big and ravenous almost overnight. People who'd claimed them earlier started showing up about six weeks later, offering their condolences and their money, and disappearing with their new dogs. The last of them was the man who owned the pup's sire, and he offered to buy Nikki so he could start breeding. His timing was perfect: just two days prior, Nikki had relieved herself on Daddy's work boots, and he took the man up on his offer. I was too sad to protest.
Even the small pup I'd latched onto was now almost identical in size from his brothers and sisters. They were all tan and black, some with a little more of one and less of the other. Only my dog's facial features set him apart; his ears seemed too big for his head, always flopping over, and his eyes drooped like a basset hound's. In a way he seemed sad, but it only helped him blend in. A thick curtain of melancholy now draped over our lives. There was no joy or laughter, only misery. Looking back on it now, we should have all gone insane. Anyone in such an environment can't help but be affected.
It was his appearance that inspired his name, as it turns out. He was over a month old before I ever considered naming him. From early on, when I had to bottle feed him because his siblings would push him away, we were inseparable. He was my only friend in the world, and I cherished him, but naming him never seemed important. I knew who he was, and he knew me.
It was a Thursday afternoon, and I was at home by myself… well, me and my dog, of course. Daddy was still at work, but I'd been home from school a couple of hours. With all the bills we couldn't afford a sitter, and my father decided I was old enough to look after myself. Our town was small and quiet, so there wasn't much to worry about.
As soon as Daddy came through the front door, I knew he'd been drinking. I could tell by the smell and the look on his face. He'd started soon after the accident, and had grown more cold and distant by the day. Most of the time, he couldn't even bear to look me in the face, and it crushed me. Finally I asked him why, and he admitted it was because I looked so much like Mama.
That afternoon was the first time my father had started drinking before he even got home from work. In my head I knew it was a wasted effort, but my heart told me I should try to cheer him up. My pup must have sensed it too, and trotted across the room. His legs had grown more than anything at that point, and he was a gangly little thing. He looked up at Daddy with those big eyes, and his reward was a foot in the side that sent him skidding across the floor toward me.
"I work ten damned hours a day, and the last thing I need when I get home is that somber-lookin' thing starin' at me," he snapped. The rejected dog turned back toward him and began to bare his teeth, but I scooped him up quickly. He calmed down right away, and Daddy headed up to his room. Afterwards, the word 'somber' stuck in my head; it had a ring to it that I liked and seemed to describe him well, so from then on he was Somber.
Like I said, we were best friends. There were times when I couldn't get Mama and Chris out of my head, and I'd just sit with my arms around Somber's neck and cry. He'd sit there for as long as I needed, never even squirming. I thought he'd do anything for me, but I didn't know until later just how far my dog would go.
My first clue came when Somber was just over a year old. I had taken him for a walk; it was one of Daddy's bad days, and I just couldn't stand to be around him like that. I walked along a trail I knew, one that Mama and I used to take when I was little, and Somber stayed right by my side. It led through our neighborhood and through a small wooded area. At one point during our walk we rounded a corner and surprised a stray brown and white cat as it gnawed on a bird it'd managed to catch. It must have been a little bit wild, because it lashed out at me, leaving a nasty scratch on my shin. Somber took off after it right away, chasing it all over the woods before it finally got away. Somber padded back to where I was, and we headed home.
I didn't give the whole thing much thought until the next morning. When I came out the front door, Somber was sitting at the bottom of the porch step with that very same brown and white cat on the ground in front of him, stiff as a board and with a broken neck. Somber looked as proud as he could be; I didn't know how to feel. I was horrified and disgusted, but at the same time it felt good that I had somebody who'd watch out for me. I shrugged it off as something that dogs do: they chase cats, right? Looking back on it now, I wish I'd paid more attention.
Even though it was late in the month of May, and summer was barely three weeks gone, the air had a slight chill to it. Dark, menacing clouds had eclipsed the sun early that morning, and a misty rain was falling. Adding to the gloom was the always-present tinge of coal-dust you find anywhere close to a mine in West Virginia. Overall, it was a good day to be indoors.
Which is just where Molly was on this Saturday afternoon. Almost four years had passed since the accident, and she was practically raising herself. As was normal on most of his days off, her father was in a drunken stupor, near comatose on the living room couch. In the only way that seemed effective at all, Molly tried to ignore it and forget what her life had become by donning her headphones and turning her music as loud as she could stand it. She lay on her bed and stared at the ominous skies while 'Remedy' by The Black Crowes blared in her ears.
In front of her house, a figure in a dark grey, standard issue, U. S. Postal Service parka crossed the street and loitered on the sidewalk. Don Kite had already made his rounds that day. The load had been light, even for a Saturday, and he'd gotten home earlier than expected. As he exited his white mail truck and headed toward his front door, a movement in the corner of his eye caught his attention. He turned toward the movement and saw that a light was on in one of the houses, and he was pretty sure he knew who's it was. He stood there for a moment, not noticing the rain that had started, as he watched for further movement. There was none, but his curiosity had been piqued. With a cautious look around, he ambled across the street.
As he stood in front of the house looking up into the rain, several minutes went by. He rocked from one foot to the other, peering up at the lighted window. Beginning to feel both foolish and guilty, Don Kite decided to head home and dry off. It was then he noticed he was being watched.
A large German Shepherd sat to the left of the house's front porch, sticking close to the edge where the overhang had so far kept it relatively dry; its thick black and tan fur was only somewhat damp. It cocked its head to one side as Don Kite noticed him, in that way dogs stare at something that seems odd to them.
"Oh, hey. Somber, right?" the postman asked, though he knew the dog well enough. Somber had never liked him. Many times the dog barked or growled when he saw Mr. Kite, and once Somber had snapped at him when he came up on the porch. "You just keep getting bigger, don'tcha boy? Good doggie."
Trying to sound friendly but failing, the postman took a tentative step backward, hoping to put some distance between he and Somber. Perhaps sensing fear, Somber's lips peeled back, baring his fangs as he growled. Postman Kite stopped dead in his tracks, but the dog continued to snarl. Thunder roared suddenly, and the sky lit up from distant lightning. The rain grew heavier.
"Easy now, boy," Mr. Kite said, trying to think of what to do next. Something about the look in Somber's deep brown eyes made him truly afraid. He backed away again, but this time the dog stood and matched his every step. Sweat formed on his brow, undetectable among the raindrops streaming down his face. His mind raced for an answer. If he yelled for help, he'd have to explain why he'd been standing in the rain outside their house in the first place. With no clear alternative, he decided to turn and run. But before his sluggish body could obey, Somber snarled and leaped.
Now Postman Kite did scream, but another clap of thunder overpowered his cry. Before he could try again, the dog's powerful jaws locked around his throat, Somber's weight driving him to the ground. With short, violent whips of his head, the dog tore at the mailman's throat. Don Kite tried again desperately to scream, but nothing would come but wet gurgles. Overhead, the steady rain became a downpour.
When I went out to feed Somber the next morning, he seemed normal, even cheerful. He shot out of his makeshift house, the area under the porch, when he heard the screen door slam shut. His tail was wagging a hundred miles-an-hour, and he jumped up on me as I came down the steps, licking at my face. At first I assumed he was hungry, but after I had poured a bowl of his favorite Hungry-Dog dry nuggets, he showed no interest at all. For Somber, that was very odd. I wondered about it for a minute or two before shaking my head and picking up the bag of dog food. It was then that I noticed them: underneath the porch, just beyond the shallow hole where Somber had been born, a trail of small bits of dark grey cloth led under the house. At the time, I thought they seemed out of place, but soon forgot about them.
Three days later, while I was outside playing with Somber, the relevance of those bits of cloth became clear. It was during the two or three relatively carefree hours before Daddy came home. A mailman wandered up the sidewalk, sorting through a handful of mail and looking at the addresses on the houses. It wasn't Don Kite, but an older black man instead. His head was clean-shaven, and he sported a black and grey peppered goatee. When our eyes crossed, he smiled and looked down at the mail in his hand. He realized the mail matched the black metal numbers nailed on the front of our porch, and walked toward me.
"Good afternoon, ma'am," he said with a genuine smile. I liked him right away, perhaps just because he wasn't Mr. Kite. "Is this your house?"
"Yes," I responded.
"Then is your mother or father around?" He scratched his head as he looked around unfamiliar surroundings.
"No," I said, not bothering to elaborate. "Can I help you?"
"Well, I suppose so. You look honest," he said with a laugh. "I've got a few days of your mail here. Sorry it's so late, but the regular postman hasn't shown up for work lately. No answer at his house either, but his mail truck's there. Sounds to me like he decided to take off somewhere, find a new life."
I nodded, trying to remain calm as all the pieces fell into place: the tattered grey cloth, Somber's lack of appetite, the disappearance of Mr. Kite. I should have been disgusted, horrified. I probably should have thrown up right there in the yard, but I didn't. I looked down at Somber, and if I hadn't known better I would have sworn he was smiling. And the thing that haunts me to this day was that a small part of me, deep down inside, was happy. Somehow, it seemed okay, justified. In my heart, I knew something about Don Kite was wrong, and hated him.
Our new mailman, Mr. Washington, smiled again and handed me the mail, and headed on down the street.
From then on, I kept a closer eye on Somber. There was a little hook-and-eye latch on the gate that led under the porch, and when I wasn't with him, I kept Somber locked up. It killed me to do it, but Somber never seemed to mind. As a matter of fact, he was the model of a perfect dog after that, always happy and playful. It wasn't until a few years later that he showed that side of himself again.
Molly, now fifteen years old and seeming every bit a young woman, sat alone and scared on the family's old, comfortable couch. Somber lay on the couch with her, resting his head in her lap as she stroked his fur absently. Tears ran out of the corners of her eyes, and she was scared. In her head, she prayed today would be better than most, and that her father would be sober when he got home. Luck was with her; at a quarter till six, he came through the front door. He had a scowl on his face, but his eyes were clear and his step was sure. After a quick glance in her direction, he headed toward the kitchen, where he kept his liquor.
"Daddy, can I talk to you?" Molly asked in a tiny voice.
"No... I need to talk now," Molly pleaded, her voice just a bit louder. He stopped but didn't turn to look at her. "Please, Daddy." He nodded and sat down in his favorite chair. It was covered with stains from spilled liquor. He stared toward the closest wall as he waited.
"Alright." His voice was monotone. "What is it?"
For several seconds, Molly couldn't say anything. She was more afraid than she'd ever been in her life, except maybe the day she's seen the police officer standing in her yard. It was close. Finally she took a deep breath, and dove straight in. If she waited any longer, she'd never go through with it.
"I think I'm pregnant," Molly blurted. Now her father did look at her. In his eyes was hurt and anger, and his fingers began to dig into the cushioned arms of his chair.
"Who did it?" he demanded. His face was trembling.
"It doesn't matter," Molly insisted. Her father shot up from his chair, unable to contain himself.
"Don't tell me it doesn't matter!" he screamed at her. Somber growled, but neither Molly nor her father paid any attention. "You tell me who it is, and I'm gonna kill 'em! That sure as Hell matters!"
"Daddy, please calm down," Molly pleaded as she pushed Somber off her lap and stood. She wanted to say she was sorry, that she was stupid and lonely and looking for attention, but she couldn't think of a way to get it all out. "It'll be okay."
"Whore! It won't be okay!" His hand lashed out, and the back of it connected with her cheek, knocking her to the couch. As soon as he'd done it, he seemed horrified of his own actions. "Oh God. What would your mother think? What would…"
He never got a chance to finish his question. Somber flew off the couch, knocking him backwards. Molly screamed for Somber to stop, but he gave no response. In vain, she hooked her hand under Somber's collar and pulled with all her might, but the dog ignored her. Her father scrambled backwards across the floor, struggling to defend himself. Somber's fanged maw gnashed at him, snapping at his throat. Molly's father fought with all of his strength, and soon his hands and forearms streamed blood. He managed to grab hold of an end table and used that to defend himself, backing into a corner. Somber clamped down on a table-leg and ripped at it. In his frenzied state, the dog's strength was staggering, and soon the old end table came apart. Molly's father screamed for help as he threw away the fractured pieces of wood he now held. With the last of his strength, his hands wrapped around Somber's neck in an attempt to keep it from his throat. But Somber was too powerful, and his snapping jaws came closer and closer to the exposed flesh. Just before they reached their mark, a loud, thunderous report filled the house. Somber went still and crumpled to the floor, never to rise again.
Not knowing what else to do, I ran and got Daddy's rifle, and as hard as it was, I shot Somber in the back of his head. He lay in the floor, eyes staring up at me; they were sad and confused. It was as if they were asking 'Why did you do that? Don't you see? I did it for you, to protect you." It was the hardest thing I'd ever done.
I loved that dog, but I loved my father more and knew that I was going to need him. We were going to need each other with the changes coming to our lives. I knew he never meant to hurt me, didn't mean what he said. He was just angry and scared… and hurt, I suppose. After that night, he never touched another bottle until the day he died. He was the perfect father again, and the perfect grandfather. I missed Somber a lot, almost as much as my brother and Mama, but things got better. It took a long time in the sun, but our sadness began to dry. It never dried completely, but enough to get by.